Living at the Corner

August 18, 2013

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

Measurement is very important. Before we go on to understand this text about immeasurability, let’s make sure we understand that immeasurability is not the enemy of measurement but instead its accomplice in the making of what is good really good.

Measurement is important. Consider dosage. Get the dose wrong and the medicine can turn into poison. Substitute two cups of salt for two cups of sugar, as I did in a spice cake last Christmas, and people who usually regard you highly and warmly will say really mean things, like what the hell did you do to the spice cake? Measurement is important.

Some of you may not know that Warren, my partner’s current project is called Energy Points. He is partnering with an Israeli entrepreneur, as a writer, to help a wonderful start up business measure how to really help the environment. Should you recycle, buy light bulbs, drive less, use more plastic, use less plastic, all of the above – and if you can only do three of those things, which will be best to do? The calorie is an energy point, which allows us to measure food, which is a big help when it doesn’t drive you crazy.
My friend who is on the cover of our bulletin today is an organic farmer who has moved to the corner of the organic movement, from which position he takes pot shots at Whole Foods and the rest of the so-called organic movement. He thinks their measurements are false. I respect his point of view and wish I could be half as radical or grizzled as he is. I also wonder why a little more organic is not better than a lot of purity in the soil. I am vexed by more than one measurement and profoundly vexed by measurement controversies, whether they are in the organic movement or in revolutions that go wrong in the Middle East because people don’t know how to name victory. What measurement gives us is a way to stop. This much democracy and this much power is enough. That much democracy and that much power is not enough. Naming what you want and being able to measure it is utterly key to revolutions, to movements, to congregations and to people. Some people call this a theory of change. I call it knowing what you want and knowing how to see it when it arrives.

Price is also a big word. It is an economic measure that matters to us just about every day a dozen times. We love to show off our bargains. Someone says a kind word about our dress, and we respond, self-diminuating, “I got it on sale, off the rack.” Or we find a good restaurant, where the food is superb the service even better, the ambiance in rivalry for the pre-existing excellences, and when we tell other people about it, we don’t brag about how much we did pay for such worthy worth. We often say that we “got a deal.” Price is a big word. The only bigger word is its opposite, priceless.

Measurements are good things, and immeasurability is also a good thing. Price is a good mechanism, and the only better mechanism is pricelessness. Robert Bellah, the great sociologist of religion who just died, said that religion was nothing more or less than the imagination of another reality. The poet Paul Eluard said that there is another reality and that it is right here. We can measure the world while knowing that our experience of it is immeasurable.

Which brings me back to the text. This text is actually in the form of a Mishnah, or a commentary on Torah. It begins with the Rabbis exhorting the people to understand what the Torah means --- and to respect so highly the learning of Torah that nothing compares in importance. Not farming, not even taking care of the poor. Learning what the Torah means is an act of such great force and power that its force and power are immeasurable.
But clearly the people wanted a measure. They wanted to know how much Torah was good enough. They also wanted to know how much they should give to the poor. The people, faced with that second reality that is right here within the first, the heaven that exists in the earth, we might say, wanted measurements for the immeasurable. And so the Mishnah goes on to say that the people should give a corner of their life to learning Torah and (we didn’t read it all today) at least 1/60th of their fruits to the poor. The translation is to give the poor at least one corner of the land and to give the Torah at least the Sabbath, one day, for its attention. The Rabbis were forced to give specific instructions in religious behavior to people who just couldn’t comprehend the immeasurable. The rabbis faced what revolutionaries face along with people who go on diets. If I want to weigh x number of pounds, I have to eat x number of calories for x number of days. Then I can declare victory. If I want to have freedom, I need to declare it with x number of people from the Moslem Brotherhood and x number of people from elsewhere, and when I get there, I name victory. The Rabbis gave the people an ethical answer to the religious problem of immeasurability. A corner of your field. A day a week of your time. This is victory for you.

Secretly, though, I think the rabbis knew that the regulations, even the best of measurements were not enough. I think they knew that something had to happen within the reality of prices and measurements to challenge their domination. Call it the Spirit of the Law if you want. Or call it living from the corner of here and now, while also having the vision of there and then. Call it being somebody who is so acquainted with the truth of Torah – and gospel – that we know the poor don’t get just a corner. The poor, in God’s eyes, get the whole field. The love of learning doesn’t just get the certification of the MBA. It gets the uncertifiable beach reading or the love some of us have for a long leisurely read of the New York Times.

Christians used to speak often of Jesus, as the one who paid the price for our salvation. We don’t much any more, now that we understand salvation to be more “plenia gratia,” full of grace, than full of recrimination. We imagine another kind of theology, where the universe became imbalanced and the Cosmic Christ restored balance by buying and paying outside of the mechanics of the price point. There was no price large enough that could ever be paid to restore creation to its original glory. So Jesus went to the mat for the glory, showed that it was worth even more than the powerful worth of his own life. He showed the authorities what creation was worth. They preferred to get a bargain. Jesus died to say that there is a worth beyond the worth of what anyone can pay. He made a statement, a new balance sheet, and an infusion into the credit card account that was overdrawn. The power he used was love, which is the tie that binds this reality of the slightly organic field and its sticker price with the full loam of powerful soil, never destroyed by the people who want to get a bargain out of our food.

Think of the last great meal you had and how you bragged about how little you had to pay for it. Think outside the deal, beyond the bargain, beyond paying off the poor with a corner. When you do that, you have moved into that other reality, which is also right here. That great meal that we got for 30.00 prix fixe when its true value to our spirits and our souls was at least thrice that. Not to mention what we would like to have given that waiter for a tip. You do get what you pay for – and if you pay in the coin of immeasurable gratitude you have already moved into heaven.

We have just been in France, having one of those nearby cultural experiences, which makes a better person if it doesn’t bankrupt you. We exchanged our New York Apartment and car for their apartment and car in Nice. Really good deal all the way around. Incommensurate in value and not needing to be weighed. Was their apartment as nice as ours? No. Did their apartment have beets growing in the back yard? No, did ours have a view? No. Pricing didn’t matter. We really liked the people. They had fun. We had fun. We each got a deal.

When it came time to fill up their car with gasoline, we got into another one of those French robotic experiences, all of which happen in French. Now Warren’s French is really good. But it doesn’t do robots. We had hilarious times trying to rent the bikes. Took four calls to Verizon to make it happen. Why? Because it did. We were a complete joke on the A8 trying to pay the toll, so much so that a lovely French woman rolled down her window and gave us the money, after we had backed up traffic for way too long. The French are not a patient people. But the gas business took the cake. Believe me when I say we did not get a deal.

First of all, we paid for the woman’s gas in front of us. And not our own. It was a simple enough mistake. You give the man in the booth your credit card, he thinks you are pump number 7, you are pump number 7 but you haven’t pumped any gas yet. Thus, we paid for her gas. 66 Euros was the price. At what amounts to 12.00 per gallon for gas, here in France, we were already nervous about paying for our own gas. It had taken us deep into the Calanques that finger the Mediterranean, making lime quarries to dress up the blue and the green of the water with the grey of the stones. What we had experienced was so beautiful that I was willing to pay for her gas and for mine. But we got the payment issue straightened out in a bout of French that cornered all of us. And I don’t mean the corner office where we came out on top. But the worst thing was that we bought the wrong gas at 12.00 a gallon. We bought her gas, and that was bad enough because the man in the booth had no idea how to resolve the problem. Plus our antagonist, the lady with the 66 Euros debt to the gas company, which we paid, was angry that her gas had cost so much. Really angry. And she wasn’t going to pay.

But then we did the deed. Instead of filling up our friend’s car with Diesel, which it uses, we filled it up with petrol, which it does not. I need to make sure you understand that he had become a friend. A very generous friend. He had invited us for drinks one evening. Just a little aperitif, he had said. 6 hours and ten courses later, we stumbled home. Actually, he drove us home. Warren, whose French is very good, was in no condition to move. Sometimes things just go wrong. They don’t mean to go wrong. They just do. And when that happens, another kind of immeasurability is needed. Forgiveness. Joined by payment of the debt to the damaged car of your good friend who only did one kindness after another for you. If the Jesus way is to overdose the universe with love to restore it, another part of it is to be ready to take responsibility for your mistakes. To pay the price of them, as it were, and to restore relationship. Often, what is tangled on our tongue is the sentence that could change your next day. Speaking that sentence is what gets us out of the corner of the field and lets us live a whole life, not just 1/60th of it. We move to the corner office when we brighten the corner where we are with something immeasurable, something that allows us to give away the whole field rather than hang on to 59/60th of it. How does that transition happen? It happens by moving out of the field of measurement into the immeasurable field. Rumi’s great quote comes to mind. There is a field beyond right and wrong. Come on out, I’ll meet you there.

Those of us who know corners know what this means. We know what it means to be cornered and not to know how to get out. The immeasurable action of forgiveness – of us forgiving those who wronged us or of receiving forgiveness – is another way of saying that measurement and repentance and paying off our mistakes is good. But even better is the restoration of right relationship. Michelle, our friend, has been extraordinarily forgiving. We are still wondering how we could have been so stupid.

You probably have heard the joke the Catskill Borsch Belt Comedian tells. He decides to do a good turn to the sick and goes to the hospital to visit some very sick people. He signs up to go weekly, giving 1/60th of his field to virtue. He tells all his jokes. The sick guy is not laughing. Finally, he gives up and just says, “I hope you get better.” The man rises and says, “I hope you do too.” I so hope you can enjoy bargains this week. And that you can do your best to manage calories and energy points and eat organic and do the right thing by the poor. I hope even more that you can do so with gladness and gratitude, love and forgiveness, and that you can forget to even try to measure those things. And if the car takes diesel, give it diesel. Or better put, know what the real source of your life’s energy is, that it is in love and forgiveness and their utterly immeasurable power, living right here inside this reality, alongside the one we can measure. Amen.




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